Why Emerging Economies also need Knowledge Transfer of Environmental Engineering

How did you get involved in sustainability?

Originally, I am an environmental chemist graduated from University of Copenhagen. My path into my current work is sustainability. By sustainable transition in developing economies, you can achieve results with far less resources than what is possible in industrialized countries.

My take when participating in projects in developing economies is that the transition towards sustainability, i.e. minimizing impact on the climate, primarily should happen in those economies because that is where you can most for the available resources.

As a chemist, how did you get involved in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?

By detours. After my degree, I worked as a consultant for several years and came to realize that the challenges posed by chemicals did not constitute the full story. In that way I became interested in life cycle assessment and wrote a PhD thesis after having worked in industry for a couple of years. I went back to industry, however decided that I would rather do research. Then, I came back to the Technical University of Denmark, first as assistant professor, then I became an associate professor and worked with LCA and projects with industry on LCA, development of LCA methodologies, and application of LCA.

Thus, my career has not been a straight line, but rather by detours motivated by my interest on how to drive a sustainable transition, help industry to arrive at the most valid conclusions about optimization as related to climate change.

Could you give a few examples of your current research concerning industrialized countries as well as developing economies.

‘Take off’ is an EU Horizon project, which targets the development of new types of climate neutral jet fuel by capturing CO2 from e.g. chimneys or directly from the atmosphere adding hydrogen made by wind power and using some very advanced catalysators it is possible to make some oil-alike substances which can be further refined into jet fuel. This is a high-tech project which probably isn’t feasible in a developing economy. However, global South countries will benefit as this project makes it possible to manufacture fuel for combustion engines which is climate neutral. The idea is that the prices of these new fuels over time will become comparable to those of fossil fuels. In that way, the project can indirectly contribute to a sustainable transition in developing economies as well.

Which is your specific role within the international team of this EU Horizon project?

That is to make an environmental and climate assessment of the chemical pathways leading to the oil-alike substances. It is a very advanced technology, which does not exist yet. Currently, we are sort of guessing how it should perform for it to be optimized. We will obtain primary data which will enable us to make a complete assessment at the level of pilot scale.

You told me earlier that SDU has been involved in the research station in Guinea-Bissau, where research on malaria has been conducted for many years. Which are the research plans of SDU for the station?

The research station in Guinea-Bissau is still primarily focused on research on health by Christine Stabell Benn, who has worked with the Bandim Health Project since 1993 (also read post about Peter Aaby). I have had some meetings with the Dean. The research is about vaccines, positive and negative effects of vaccinating population group in developing economies. We would like to contribute with our research, however currently this is not possible, as we have difficulties in getting funding for projects in Guinea-Bissau.

What is your opinion concerning the objective of research capacity development in the DANIDA program ‘Building Stronger Universities’ (BSU) program? In other interviews, Danish faculty have mentioned that the BSU efforts are not followed up locally. The universities in Africa do not give priority to or do not have the funds to continue the research activities.

At Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) in Tanzania, they are very interested in learning from us. However, when the funding disappears, the route taken will be discontinued. I am teaching/disseminating sustainability assessment and try to introduce the scholars at SUA to circular economy. They are very interested, but their dedication is not sustained, when the funds are gone.

Sweden has invested substantial funds institutionally in a few selected universities, i.e. not based on specific course development or limited to a certain period.

I met somebody from SIDA; it looks that they are also interested in SUA, which renders it somewhat strange that DANIDA said that SUA would not be part of BSU IV, except for the university in Zanzibar. There is some sort of disharmony between the Swedish and Danish priorities, as the assessment by the Swedes seems to be that there probably is a basis to build upon.

Which are your recommendations for a strategy to build capacity? Should other components be added, or should the overall approach be changed?

I don’t know. However, one should certainly follow upon our point of departure in what we are trying to teach them so that it will be applied in their everyday context. Currently our effort seems to be some exotic interventions which cannot be applied directly in their teaching programs. I don’t know why because what we are trying to teach them has general relevance. In some cases, it seems that they are losing interest when we have left. I think it is important to secure a deeper implementation of research.

Have you met other donors during your involvement? It is my impression that several agencies are actively involved in this field, however with little or no coordination, as you hardly know each other. However, this experience is from some years back.

I have heard and observed that NORAD and USAID are active at SUA. Thus, more investors are involved. This only makes the pull-out by DANIDA even more peculiar. By a joint coordinated Nordic effort, it would be possible to achieve much more than today.

How do you assess the partnership itself in terms of publication, promotion of academic working methods, and equality in working relations?

I experience a certain level of involvement, however sometimes one may wonder whether the Tanzanian partners are participating for the money only, or whether they are motivated by academic interest. That is not clear to me. The suspicion is there, that they only do it out of economic interest.

What do you mean? It is ‘gap-filling’?

The driving force is not necessarily an academic interest from the South partners in learning something new, it could be the fact that money is attached. I feel that this is the wrong motivation for this kind of projects. I feel somewhat frustrated when I get this feeling.

Do you have any reform proposals which could lead to a higher level of involvement?

That is the Holy Gral. I have thought about it, however I do not have any proposal. It is a problem. I can understand their motivation; they are under extreme pressure every day, as very few resources are available. I just think it is a pity that educational systems in developing economies have not advanced. We do all the best we can to facilitate an upgrade of the South universities.

How about publication strategies?  From the point of view of SDU, and as viewed by the partners. How much academic publication is produced?

Not very much, I have to say. That means that BSU has a much lower priority in Danish universities, where the current management is much more focused on academic publishing. That makes it difficult to motivate future involvement, as the Danida Fellowship Centre (DFC) is not and cannot be aligned with the key performance indicators of Danish universities. I would consider other initiatives outside DANIDA. A researcher from Vietnam visited us, and we will try to create projects with developing economies, that are operating at a slightly higher level of academic performance and thus having a better chance of producing scientific publications. It is very difficult to motivate African faculty to publish, they are not ‘publication-driven’.

What are your ideas and plans for research in the future?

There is some disappointment with the current practice of DFC. We feel that our research applications are not prioritized/appreciated and that it is the same groups that are receiving funding over and over. This is our one-sided interpretation which we probably cannot prove, however, this is the feeling across disciplines we are left with. Maybe, some of the countries in Africa, in which DFC is involved, are operating at a level that does not match our key performance indicators at SDU. That is why we momentarily are looking more towards Asia and alternative sources of funding such as DFF (Independent Research Denmark). We will try to look at some of the research methods we are using that can be applied in the context of developing countries for mutual benefit. It becomes more oriented toward research rather than development, however with the objective that both parties should benefit. It is a more difficult exercise, however if successful I think that the benefit has a higher value for both parties.

Do you have a more detailed strategy?

We have in 2023 applied for funding for a project on plastics jointly with partners in the Netherlands and Vietnam for research on micro and macro plastics to be applied e.g. in a circular economy for plastics.

Is it still something about how things can work better in the South, or does it include a sort of feedback to strategies in Denmark?

It will always be related to the Danish strategy. The question is always whether the payoff of climate interventions in developing economies is better than in Denmark. Our high level of technology development means even small improvements typically are very costly. In developing countries, much more can be achieved at a lower cost, because solutions are low technology, e.g. converting residuals from agriculture to biogas and avoiding emissions.

Do you have any suggestions how to organize the research cooperation differently? One suggestion is to move the funds to Independent Research Denmark, which is divided into sectors and has a much shorter period of processing applications. Also, the universities can nominate members to the research councils of Independent Research Denmark.

I have thought about that myself; there should not be the kind of selection, first internally at DFC. Instead, you should apply the fund and those achieving the highest priority should be selected for funding. By that, not political, but scientific priorities would prevail.

A counter argument is that strategic priorities apply for Independent Research Denmark and for the Innovation Fund as well. That is not very different from the strategic priorities of DANIDA.

The question is whether the priorities of DANIDA corresponds to national priorities of the recipient countries. Sometimes, I find it difficult to validate that this is the case. If aiming for coordination with Sweden and Norway national priorities of the recipient countries must be the point of departure, not DANIDA priorities. It would require that DANIDA let go – and they may not agree to such a difficult process – which I think is possible. There is no guarantee for anything, but I think that DANIDA maybe represents an archaic organisation type for distributing research funds in a society with very different priorities than in the 1970s.

Professor Morten Birkved